Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Bold Moves Edition

The temptation is to say, much as I did a week ago, that another week begets another firing in Cleveland professional sports.  But firings are for folks like Rob Chudzinski, the Cleveland Browns’ former head coach.  When the two individuals higher up the food chain and most responsible for the mess that is the Cleveland Browns get canned, the talk is more polite. 

Joe Banner, the team’s CEO is stepping down.  Mike Lombardi is departing.  The words are irrelevant.  They’re both out.  Owner Jimmy Haslam is clearly sick and tired of running the worst franchise in the NFL and decided to do something about it so he broke up the band.  The Three Stooges are no more.

In their place, Haslam promoted Ray Farmer to general manager, kept Alec Schreiner as the team’s president and the person in charge of the business side of operations and, surprisingly, didn’t start over again by firing the recently hired head coach, Mike Pettine.  That may sound ludicrous, the firing of Pettine.  But no more so than anything else, particularly considering that Banner, not Farmer, was most instrumental in hiring Pettine after anyone else of note had long dropped out of consideration.

Haslam then decided to have all three, Farmer, Schreiner and Pettine, reporting directly to him.  In a sense it’s streamlined.  In another sense it’s weird though not unprecedented.  Typically the head coach would report to the general manager.  Farmer has control over the 53 man roster and Pettine has control of the players on the field.  When differences develop as they inevitably will between the two it will rest on Haslam, perhaps the least experienced owner in the NFL, to resolve the conflict.  By placing his impetuous self in the middle of the general manager and the head coach, Haslam effectively has given himself the role of final arbiter.  That should work well given how level headed Haslam has been so far.

It’s great that Farmer, the team’s assistant general manager, has become the league’s second African American general manager.   It would have been far better had Farmer been given the full range of what goes with that job—the chance to hire and manage the head coach.  Alas that wasn’t in Haslam’s plan.  Having watched impatiently and angrily from the sidelines last season as his team played like past versions when he wasn’t owner, Haslam wants to be front and center at turning around this franchise in his image, whether he’s qualified to be or not.  At least now there won’t be any questions over the real throat to choke when things go predictably wrong.

Haslam’s moves were bold, so we’ll give him credit for that.  So was the timing.  And for all those like me who clamored for the removal of those responsible for the processes that led first to Rob Chudzinski’s hiring and then his quick firing, our wish has been granted.  But let’s not pretend for a minute that this immediately solves any of the lingering questions hanging over this franchise like the dark clouds perpetually over the Cleveland skyline.

The biggest question it begs is why now or, more appropriately, why not before he let the team he just fired choose his new head coach?  Haslam got that question and a variety of others that essentially boiled down to “what the hell?” during his press conference on Tuesday by an emboldened press corps not particularly concerned about being polite.  They peppered Haslam with questions that were often tough or at least uncomfortable.  He didn’t necessarily back away from them but that doesn’t mean he answered them either.  Haslam wants to look forward folks, not dwell on the past even if that past is only a few weeks old.

It’s not hard to imagine that a Browns front office under this week’s design might have been more attractive to potential head coaching candidates but that didn’t seem to concern Haslam as he’s fully vested in his own version of reality as to the state of his franchise in the court of public opinion.  Nonetheless, the trepidation many of those potential coaches probably felt having to work for Joe Banner and with Mike Lombardi was a drawback given how poorly it worked out for Chudzinski. 

If there was anything noteworthy other than the timing coming out of the press conference it was that Haslam still is convinced that the perception of the Browns as a radioactive franchise is a media creation.   How he can honestly or at least earnestly come to that conclusion given the turmoil of the last six weeks is confounding. Frankly, Haslam’s words don’t resonate anyway.  His actions do and the remake of his franchise in just the last 14 months is astounding. 

Haslam was in full throated southern drawl sincerity for his press conference.  He wouldn’t concede, let alone dwell, on Lombardi’s shortcomings in picking personnel or Banner’s shortcomings in just about everything else.  Give him credit for understanding how criticism of those two only makes him look worse not better. 

But it was very clear at the least that Haslam felt that not just the structure but the people he had in place were not going to be able to move this franchise forward despite all the prior praise he had heaped on this same individuals.  Perhaps Haslam was most candid at admitting that being a NFL owner is a bigger learning curve then he thought.  That was a bow at least to the legitimacy of the criticism the moves he’s previously made have received.  Given these moves, that criticism won’t dissipate any time soon.
The Browns are or at least were a mess, assuming one sees Tuesday’s announcements as some sort of final sweep of the place.  Still, context matters.  The Browns’ quixotic search for a head coach was, charitably, bizarre and this final outcome, with Banner and Lombardi off to find paychecks elsewhere, doesn’t make it less so.

If fans are scratching their heads it’s because the slow drip water torture that this franchise visits upon them makes it difficult to absorb all that’s taken place.  Yet here’s where we’re at, though stay tuned, another week is just around the corner.

Pettine is the new head coach and an unknown commodity, a rookie head coach who, if the Browns were being completely honest to their fans, wasn’t on theirs or any team’s original short list of candidates.  His staff is mostly just as inexperienced.  Farmer is just as inexperienced as a general manager but at least he was far closer to the top job in his field than Pettine was at the time he was promoted. Scheiner is the guy behind the scenes, a neophyte also charged with making sure the checks get out on time and the bills get paid.

Whatever merits these moves may have now and in the long term, the timing is still mystifying but explainable because this is the Browns and everything always seems to be ass backward in its approach.

But as the smoke clears at least even the most jaded among us would have to concede that the Browns actually have in place a new team that isn’t just the perpetuation of failed regimes elsewhere, for whatever that’s worth.  All 3 of Haslam’s direct reports are of the hotshot up and comer variety, not retreads.  It doesn’t mean the Browns won’t be terrible next season.  They probably will be.  But at least there is the semblance of a real, legitimate new team in place.  It’s up to Haslam to now rest his trigger finger for a few years and give this bouillabaisse time to simmer.  

In the meantime all Farmer has to do is correct the mistakes of Lombardi and all the others that have gone before him.  He’s got enough draft picks and cap cash to do something dramatic.  Whether he’s capable is a question to which all fans are once again awaiting an answer.  All Pettine has to do is figure out how to be a head coach and then coach up the players he’s handed and hope against hope that none of the key ones get injured.  It’s felled everyone else that’s come before him.  As for Schreiner, he’s charged with putting lipstick on this pig and selling more season tickets. 

In other words, it’s going to be the longest year of each of the three’s lives.  

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